In the Sudanese capital Khartoum, a deadly conflict has erupted in recent days between rival factions of the armed forces. 180 people dead and at least 1,800 civilians and combatants were injured.
Fighting broke out between the Sudanese armed forces led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, as fighter jets flew over the capital and armed fighters took to the streets.
Militia vs Army
The latest fighting comes as no surprise to many in Sudan, where a power struggle has been raging for some time between the two generals, al-Burhan and Dagalo (aka Hemedti). It has a historical tail of more than 20 years, all the way back to the early days of the conflict in Darfur and the rise of the notorious Janjaweed militia.
From then on, Hemedti, a leader of the Janjaweed militia group of the Abbala Rezeigat tribe in northern Darfur, rose to prominence for his willingness to carry out raids on villages, leading to widespread massacres, rapes and looting.
What he learned very early on was that strength came from doing things that no reasonable person would do. Unlike the military, its fighters were “free range” – able to roam and kill people at will.
Read more: Sudan conflict: Hemedti – the warlord who built a paramilitary force more powerful than the state
His work had another function. Because he was “free range” and had no direct chain of command, it meant he could do the government’s bidding, but do it with maximum deniability.
It was this ruthless mindset and operational flexibility that won him the favor of Sudan’s then president, General Omar al-Bashir, who needed an informal paramilitary group to protect him from enemies within his party, the National Islamic Front.
This militia became the Rapid Support Forces, which is currently fighting the Sudanese army. It was given special status in 2017 as “independent security service”, not part of the regular armed forces.
Nor was it just al-Bashir who benefited from this relationship. In exchange for his help, Hemedti was given free access gold mines in Darfurwhich made him immensely wealthy.
Compare this with al-Burhan of the Sudanese armed forces. As a career general, he has been involved in the army since 1991 and has conducted several campaigns. He had been in Darfur since the early days of the conflict coordinating an anti-insurgency campaign, but he is also not that enterprising as Hemedti, nor as silvered.
But when former President al-Bashir ran into trouble in early 2019, Hemedti was the one who stabbed his former patron in the back by supporting the other side. This has never forget by the Islamists of Sudan.
Al-Bashir was subsequently deposed in a coup, but the generals have never been comfortable bedfellows. While they have worked together, there have been clear instances where Hemedti has tried to undermine al Burhan.
The region wants more business, less war
All of these developments are taking place in increasingly turbulent geopolitical waters for Sudan, where old alliances are rapidly changing.
While Hemedti managed to forge strong ties with Saudi Arabia and an alliance of countries in the Persian Gulf by sending soldiers to fight in Yemen, there are now hopeful signs that this eight-year conflict may be coming to an end. Feeding this hope is a détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran recently brokered by the Chinese.
Read more: Explainer: what Sudan’s coup is all about and why the rest of the world must act
The United Arab Emirates, which hosted al-Burhan in February, has called for restraint in Sudan and cooperation between the two sides a peaceful solution to the current crisis.
Egypt, which has traditionally supported al-Burhan and the military, has also expressed its willingness to work for peace and has called for an immediate ceasefire before things get out of hand.
Russia, that has been consolidation of relations with Sudan has also called for restraint in recent years. Russia has supplied weapons to the Sudanese army.
For many of the countries in the region, Sudan’s overall approach can be summed up as more business, less war. The country’s Gulf neighbors are seeking to diversify their oil-based economies and are looking to Sudan for business opportunities. Conflict disrupts those opportunities.
While the generals fight for power, civilians fight for food
In Sudan itself, it is difficult to estimate the public’s hunger for more struggle. Hemedti has stated that he is the injured party, and says he is against civilian killings and for civilian government.
Al-Burhan sees Hemedti as one criminal and an upstart.
Both are no doubt aware that the longer the situation continues, the more unsustainable their activities will become.
But as the generals battle it out, the economy continues to decline and the cost of living rises. Since the coup, basic household items such as bread are ten times more expensive than beforewhile other items increase by as much as 300%.
As one woman in the market in Khartoum pointed out in a recent Reuters report, while they fight to plunder the land, we fight for food.